Thursday, June 16, 2011

Restaurant Spotlight: Tolani

The Upper West Side, of New York City, has certainly defined itself as a restaurant destination in the last five years. There was a time when I started feeling like each time someone recommended a new and exciting place, it would be in that area. In fact, visiting this part of town is like a stroll down memory lane for me as I pass familiar signs and windows. However, these days there’s a new spot on the Upper West Side that has gotten me to come back over and over again, literally: Tolani Wine Restaurant.

From the outside, this unassuming restaurant may seem like just another wine bar with some sidewalk seating, but it’s far more than that. Upon entering Tolani, you find yourself enveloped by its warm atmosphere with a casual bar-meets-artful lounge feel. Warm wood tones and well-managed shaded lighting set the stage for comfort, romance or a meeting of the minds. However, it’s when you go downstairs that this establishment’s hidden treasures are truly revealed. The downstairs dinning area takes the warm comfort from the bar and transforms it into a candlelit fine dining atmosphere with full view of a glass-enclosed wine cellar and outdoor patio seating. The mix of atmosphere and mood setting makes Tolani a highly versatile hotspot for any event.

The experience continues as you sit down for dinner. With Executive Chef Luis Ulloa (and Consulting Chef Craig Hopson of Le Cirque), the kitchen at Tolani manages to turn out plate after plate in a mix of unique and eclectic dishes. Perfectly balancing a number of cuisines from around the world while still keeping the menu cohesive and flowing, there is a level of passion and attention to detail that truly speaks through the food. With each visit, I feel as if I’m surprised by something different and new. Add to this the exciting list of wines and cellar full of various treasures and you have the makings of a great evening out. Honestly, I can’t think of the last time that I was so impressed with a menu as a whole.

On to the food:

Cauliflower Soup
Blue crab meat, black truffle

The Cauliflower soup was a perfect example of how less can be more. The soup itself was creamy, almost decedent, invoking earthy flavors that were set off by the silken sweetness of the crabmeat. It was warming, like something you’d find in an Alpine Chalet, yet elegant with layers of flavor.

Grilled Octopus
Greek Salad & Romaine Hearts, Feta Cheese, Red Onions, Cucumbers, Kalamata Olives

The Grilled Octopus showed the level of attention paid to details and fresh ingredients at Tolani. The meat itself was perfect, seared by an expert hand, which lent a satisfying snap as you bit into it and found the silky, buttery flesh beneath. It was fresh and delicious over an unassuming Greek-styled salad. Not overthought, not overdone, it was just perfectly cooked and seasoned. Serve this to someone who claims to not like Octopus, and watch their eyes light up.

Savory Crepe, Slow Braised Pork Shoulder, Apple ginger chutney

The savory crepe is an art not practiced often enough in restaurants, and at Tolani, they’ve done a masterful job. The aromas wafting up from the plate were intoxicating with holiday spices and baked apple in butter piecrust. You would think that this can’t taste as good as it smells—but it does. This dish provided a menagerie of flavors and sensations on the palate, but what impressed me most was the addition of the ginger chutney that lent just enough spice and zing to keep this rich and sedative dish alive and kicking.

Braised short rib, black truffle and arugula

Touted by one of my guests as one of the best pasta dishes he’d ever eaten, the Pappardelle may not have ranked in my top five, but easily in my top ten. Eating this invoked thoughts of sitting in a small trattoria in northern Italy. The homemade pasta was a rustic, stick-to-your-bones variety, which seemed to be from another time and place, however it still managed to fit in perfectly with the other items on the menu. The braised pulled rib meat was succulent with a parade of herbs, spicy flavors and a level of richness that can only be achieved through slow braising.

Pan-Seared Diver Scallops
Sweet Corn Puree, Succotash, Black Truffle Vinaigrette

The Pan-Seared Diver Scallop was another dish that Tolani managed to balance right at the brink of sweet and heat. The scallop itself was perfectly fresh and perfectly cooked with a satisfyingly sweet crunch to the flesh. Within the meat was silken smooth and luxurious. This was a dish that allowed you to explore through its many ingredients, experimenting with hot spices, sweet corn and the mouth-watering vinaigrette. In a word: exceptional.

Tolani Wine Restaurant Website!

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